19 January 2010

Who Wins in Massachusetts?

Republicans and their radio auxiliaries are gloating in anticipation of an epochal political upset in Massachusetts, where most recent polls point toward a Republican taking over the U.S. Senate seat that Ted Kennedy had held for 46 years. The Democratic nominee's early lead in opinion polls has evaporated after what reporters describe as a completely lame if not contemptuous campaign that took victory for granted while seeming to denigrate the necessity of electioneering. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee, who is described here as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by national GOP standards, gets to pass as a conservative in the eyes of the national media because he has promised to vote against the Democratic health-care reform legislation. On the national stage, the special election has become a referendum on health-care reform, the assumption being that a Republican victory will cost the Democrats their "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate and end any hope for reform. Reactionaries have done a great job scaring Americans about health-care reform, and Democrats have done an awful job putting their legislative package together, making an especially poor impression with the corrupt bargains leaders had to make with their own fellow partisan Senators to advance the bills. Radical health-care reform is an eventual necessity if we wish to remain a civilized nation, but the Democrats have given us reason to doubt whether their concoction really fills the prescription. Defeat now may be the goad necessary to get principled Democrats (and maybe allies elsewhere) to work on real reform before the November elections. Should the Republican win in Massachusetts, the worst thing the Democrats could do is ram through their legislation during the interval before Scott Brown's election is confirmed by the state. That would all too easily be portrayed as the Democrats going against the will of the American people as expressed in the Bay State, and it would allow Republicans and other opponents to portray the Democrats, fairly or not, as undemocratic.

If descriptions of Brown as a RINO or as someone to the left of the benighted Dede Scozzafava of NY23 fame are accurate, it becomes more curious to see the same reactionary elements who abandoned Scozzafava in favor of a Conservative party candidate cheering Brown on. There is an alternative to Brown for anti-Democratic types in the form of the opportunistically named Joe Kennedy, the Libertarian party nominee. Brown has long wanted Kennedy to go away and long resisted his inclusion into the TV debates, while Kennedy has claimed that he's taking more votes from the Democrat than from the Republican. Kennedy has been polling in the low single digits all along, never catching fire the way the Conservative candidate did in NY23. That may be because Libertarian isn't as attractive a brand name as Conservative, and it may be because anti-Democratic and anti-liberal elements are mostly rallying around Brown in order to secure the heavily symbolic victory of conquering Ted Kennedy's seat. Depressingly most likely is the possibility that Bay Staters, spooked by the health-reform debate, are practicing preventive voting on lesser-evil principles. To stop the national Democratic party from doing something they fear, they seem to be throwing their support behind the only entity powerful enough to stop the Democrats: the Republican party. In such a circumstance the Republicans' own poor record or the ideological integrity of Scott Brown count for less than the desperate need to check one party with another.

The American Bipolarchy persists in part because of the American people's reluctance to take radical action in any direction. They still seem to prefer a two-party system in which one party is a deterrent to the other. Individual candidates are disposable and exist to be punished for party failures, but the parties themselves are kept around lest the next successful candidate mistake the punishment of his predecessor for a mandate to try anything new. The American majority is not yet desperate enough to trust government to take radical action for the public good. The real question for the next decade may be: how bad do things have to get before we wake up?

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